…with credit to Barbara Stanny, the author of Secrets of Six-Figure Women (which would be a good topic for a post too!)
Lately (and this impression was solidified at the recent ATA conference), I’ve noticed a very positive trend in our industry, that of the freelance translator earning over US $100,000 per year. Right now, I can think of at least five freelance translators I’ve talked to in recent months who have either insinuated or directly said that for 2008 they expect to break the six-figure income mark. Here, we’re talking about a) people who make the bulk of their income directly from translation, not from markups on subcontracting, and b) gross income, not net.
Now, I don’t have a gripe with how much I earn for how much I work; I will earn more than the average for full-time freelancers in the ATA this year, and I work about 35 hours a week during the school year and about 20 hours a week in the summer, with four to six weeks of vacation. However, I think that we can all learn a lot from six-figure translators and their attitudes toward their work. From my unscientific research, here are a few observations on what it takes to earn more than 100K per year as a freelancer.
First, I think that six-figure translators are actually a very diverse bunch. Some charge extremely high rates, some make very efficient use of technology like CAT tools and speech recognition, some work very long hours. So, I think it’s important to realize that there are a number of paths to 100K, it’s not all people working in a certain language or living in a certain place.
Next, I think that in order to reach six figures, there are a couple of non-negotiables: being very, very good at what you do, having a targeted specialization or working in a niche language, charging higher than average rates and being a businessperson/translator, not a translator/businessperson. For example, the average full-time freelancer might translate 400,000-600,000 words per year. If you charge 10 cents a word, you have to translate almost double that amount to reach six figures. But at 20 cents a word, 100K starts to look practically doable. So, although not everyone making six figures is charging very high rates (which I would define as 35-40 cents a word and up, and yes, there are people out there who are commanding those rates!), I would say that if you are not averaging at least 18 cents a word, you would have to work very long hours or very, very efficiently to reach six figures.
Six-figure translators are rarely, if ever, generalists. I think that the exception to this rule is people who work in languages where the pool of translators is small enough that people don’t tend to specialize. Partially, I think that this results from the fact that specialization is the key to attracting direct clients, and very few agencies in the U.S. are willingly going to pay 20+ cents per word for common languages; if you break the 100K mark, you are undoubtedly working either primarily or exclusively for direct clients.
Surprisingly, the six-figure translators I’ve met are not the over-caffeinated stress machines that one might imagine. Rather, they seem to love their work and be happy that they have coincidentally found a way to make what one of them described as “a ton of money” doing it. Six-figure translators also talk about money a lot. While I’m sure that no one is going to attend a translation event and broadcast the fact that they charge five cents a word, I do think that willingness to talk about rates is a good tool for setting/raising your rates; when you meet someone who is as busy as they want to be at double what you’re charging, it is a good incentive to push your own rates up.
Six-figure translators also seem to concentrate on clients who care about the quality of their translations and the level of service they receive, not just about things being on time and on budget (although I’m sure they care about that too!). In her presentation about marketing to direct clients, France-based French to English translator Chris Durban talked a lot about selling “a translation that reflects the quality of the company’s products and services,” which I thought was a great way to distinguish translation as a non-commodity.
So, whether you’re setting your sights on six figures for 2009 or whether you’d just like to earn a little more than you are now, I think that six-figure translators have a lot to teach all of us about the way we run our businesses.
Excellent post, Corinne. I think that one other big factor that comes into play in making over $100,000 in gross income is the strength/weakness of the dollar in any given year. Even with the dollar having regained a great deal of its strength against the euro over the past six months, I can earn a lot more in USD by working for European direct clients rather than U.S. customers.
Susanne Aldridge III says
While I was reading the post, I was very impressed – and of course I tried to figure out who you would be talking about and if I met them 🙂
Corinne McKay says
@Abigail, you’re so right! Even with the rising dollar, clients who pay in euros are still a great thing, especially if you can keep the money in euros to spend when you go overseas, thus avoiding currency exchange fees and bad rates.
@Susanne, I bet that you met some six-figure people at the conference! In some cases I’ve extrapolated, my assumption being that anyone who charges 35 cents a word and describes themself as being “swamped” is doing, um, pretty well!
To sum up your post (now just found almost a decade late), if I don’t know how to run a business, you’ve just told me I’m hopelessly out of luck. Yet you offer not one suggestion about how to solicit direct clients or “run a business.” Everything you specified applies to type-A yuppies, but not to the rest of us. For instance, I’m a high-functioning Asperger-syndrome guy in my 60s with disabled spouse, so I translate about 99% of the time from home.
How do I start/run a business with such a handicap as Asperger’s & its massive autistic personality “flaw”? Any ideas? Despite the “15-languages-into-English” that I offer, medical/oncological specialties, etc., most agencies sniff and walk away, and I have never in nearly 7 years contacted any medical bunch that responded to my skills.
You have simply dismissed the great majority of translators with the usual “American dream” motto. without providing any really solid suggestions for help.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks for your comment; my blog has over 700 posts, and many of them have to do with how to market your services. Just put “marketing” into the search box and you’ll find them!
Ryan Ginstrom says
I know many Japanese-to-English translators making over $100,000 per year. Two of them (that I know of) make over $200,000. Japanese could probably be classified as a niche language (which is crazy, considering that Japan has the world’s second-largest economy).
I think you nailed the two main paths to reach those income levels: charge high rates or work very quickly (or best of both worlds – both! :). Both of these require very good expertise in the subject area: the first to provide enough value to command high rates, and the second to minimize the need for research/dictionary work.
Working long hours only pays off for so long — study after study has shown that when knowledge workers (that’s us!) work long hours (more than 40/week), productivity rapidly drops off, and total output is often lower than those working 40 hours.
And I think you’re also right that it’s hard to keep up that income if you don’t like your job. 🙂
Manami Eiki, PhD, RPh says
How about English-to-Japanese translators? I am looking into becoming a medical/scientific English-to-Japanese translator. I am still wondering whether I will be able to make a living as a freelance translator. I would like to start out as a part-time translator while keeping my full-time pharmacist job. Any advice/suggestion will be appreciated.
Corinne McKay says
@Ryan, thanks for your comment! Now I’m wondering why I didn’t learn Japanese instead of French (other than that Japanese wasn’t offered in middle schools in New Jersey in the 80s, that is…). I agree that the situation with Japanese is odd, given that the country is anything but small. Unscientifically, it seems to me that even mid-level Japanese translators are charging 20+ cents per word, and experienced translators with direct clients, probably more than double that amount. And your comment about knowledge worker productivity just gave me an idea for a post, thank you!!
I went looking for your links about blogs and got sucked into reading this post instead. I think it’s great that your post goes against the general gloom and doom of T&I professionals.
Corinne: I too grew up in NJ, but they had Japanese in high school by the time I was leaving.
Judy Jenner says
I couldn’t agree with you more, Corinne! We are among the (apparently) small group of translators who charge high (and fair) rates. Ergo, we are happy when we work, because we don’t feel like we are being taken advantage of, as we would feel if we, say, charged half. We don’t really work crazy hours, but we do accept the occasional 24-hour turnaround, at a substantial premium, of course.
I am glad that you are addressing this as well — join the movement, everyone! My twin Dagy and I strongly agree that the “secret” behind our success has been working (thus far) with 100% direct clients, who are less price sensitive, don’t treat you as an exchangeable peon, and are grateful to work with professionals. This morning, we got a project from one of our favorite direct clients here in Las Vegas, and they accepted our usual rate (there is no “best” rate — there’s just one rate) without hesitation.
Here’s to charging higher rates and to making 100 K a year, everyone! I also think that price transparency is a good thing. Our rates are not a secret: there’s a rate sheet on our web site.
I found your blog while searching for blogs and podcasts for translators, and I must say it’s very informative and fun to read! It’s now 2016, 8 years after you posted this article, and it’s still benefiting readers like me.
I checked your website, and found out about your multilingual background. I just want to say that I can relate in the sense that I also grew up in a multilingual environment (though not moving around as much as you), so I was exposed to 4 languages while growing up (these include Mandarin and another variant of Chinese). It was actually fun and entertaining to learn many languages while at a very young age. Though some speech therapists would say to stick to one language when teaching a child if he/she is having a hard time learning to talk (but that is another topic).
Corinne McKay says
@Nicole, thanks for your comment. We bloggers specialize in sucking people in, thanks for joining us!
@Judy, I think you’re so right about the value of direct clients; when one works primarily or exclusively with agencies, unless those agencies pay really, really well, it’s nearly impossible to move up to six figures. Good work to you and Dagy!
Ryan Ginstrom says
It’s really cool that you post your rates on your site. Those rates are on the high end but not unheard of for Japanese-to-English work from agencies in Japan. Japanese to English probably takes longer than going between European languages, though. I know I still work faster going from Spanish to English, even though my Japanese is a lot better than my Spanish now.
Tapani Ronni says
An extremely interesting blog topic! I work from English to Finnish but I have never even heard of anyone in my language pair charging USD 0.35 per word. In my experience, it should be possible to make six figures when working with a rare language, specialized niche and no competition. That is certainly my goal for 2009, and it does not involve 70-hour weeks either. CAT tools are invaluable helpers, though, and setting your rates and sticking to them.
Hmm, must consider raising my rates next year. 🙂
Well Corinne, I believe that everything depends on such important variables as, for example, the region where you live at or the language pairs in which one works.
In my case: I live in Latin America and my language pair is EN to SP. It is impossible to fight against colleagues who accept rates like $0.02 per source word: believe or not, it’s true!
So, lucky those living in more fortunate regions and / or working in an unusual language pair.
Looking elsewhere on the Internet? I can say that it is very, very close to ‘mission impossible’.
I really enjoyed this post. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commentators here! Keep writing. Thanks…
I only just came across your post and wanted to comment on one point you make. You say that “if you break the 100K mark, you are undoubtedly working either primarily or exclusively for direct clients.”
I am lucky to be one of the “100K translators”. My income is the only household income and I am feeding a family of 4. And…. I work exclusively for agencies! I don’t want to work with direct clients and am deliverately only working with European agencies. If you select your agencies carefully, you fill find many that are willing to pay €0.14 or even €0.20 per word and in my opinion working with them is a lot less stressful than working with direct clients, and certainly less time-consuming.
So, I just wanted to point out that your assumption is not necessarily true and that you can also make more than 100K working only for agencies if you choose them wisely. 🙂
Lucky you Nicole (and Corinne) who are able to manage and remain at those levels so sensational!
Let’s see … How about sharing some of that good fortune, say, by providing some of those good customers you have, for my language pair?: EN – SP?.
You can trust me, I am VERY good at my language pair and you will not regret.
Of course, if this does not harm you and are willing to help.
You can find me at: intospanishnow dot com
Nothing lost if I try, right? Nothing ventured, Nothing gained, they say … 🙂
Great post. I don’t get to see enough written from translation professionals about how to increase their business and lifestyle. The vast majority of information I come across is always centered around being a better translator and not better at the business of translation.
I liken it to physicians. The doctors I know are primarily concerned with being better doctors and have little interest in running a medical practice. In my experience they are all very concerned with their income and yet don’t see that one cannot happen without the other.
I owned a 7 figure LSP for years and would often wonder why translators are sometimes their own worst enemies. Many factors will get you over the 6 figure fence. Some factors may prove that this vaulted goal is impossible. As stated by Emilio above with the majority of language pairs you simply cannot compete and expect to demand high enough rates to earn six figures without working 100+ hours week. Add in technological changes – crowdsourcing for instance – and you had better start working on your business and not just in it.
I wrote further on this subject a while ago at http://globalsitesecrets.com/4secretstomoretranslations/
if you want more of my perspective.
Great conversation though. A round of applause for more discussion on the business of translation. I look forward to more of your posts.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks for your comment Russell! I do agree that most independent professionals are trained in how to do their job, not in how to run a business or work more efficiently. As far as I know, lawyers and dentists and accountants aren’t trained in how to run a freelance business, so it’s not just us! And thanks for pointing out the need to work on one’s business given recent developments in our industry. When I talk to beginners who are very anxious about machine translation, crowdsourcing, offshoring, whatever the latest paranoia is, I always tell them “There are more than enough people scrambling to fill the low end of the market, so let them have it. If you really want to do this, the only place to aim is up!”
Sara Freitas-Maltaverne says
Great post as usual. I think merely *talking* about this can do wonders. In France many freelance translators have opted for the “micro-entreprise” system, where your gross revenue is capped at 32K EUR, which I always find kind of depressing (why clip your own wings? it’s like admitting that you could never earn more before you even get your business up and running).
And translators in that range are incredulous when you say you are in the six-figure range. It took me about 7 years to get there (first 3 years working for agencies only, then repositioning and effectively restarting my business with direct clients for years 3-6).
By openly talking about the fact that there are substantial numbers of established freelancers with diverse profiles and business models acheiving six-figure incomes, hopefully that will raise the bar (and raise the hopes of) everyone else out there.
The goal is a comfortable lifestyle, interesting work, and job satisfaction!
Sara Freitas-Maltaverne says
Of course, since hitting the six-figure mark I’ve expanded the business with two partners and am now broke again, but having a lot of fun with this new adventure 🙂
Corinne McKay says
Sara, thanks for your comments. And congratulations on the success of the new venture! I think you’ve pointed out something really critical: that when you earn a healthy income, you have the level of flexibility that lets you try new things (new business venture, more interesting work that doesn’t pay as much, etc). I think that a major issue with charging low rates is that there is no slack in the system; you have to be working every minute of every day just to reach your target income. And then what happens if you get sick and can’t work for a while, or you lose a major client on short notice, or you have a great idea for an expanded partnership 🙂 Thanks for making that point, very important!
Dan Bradley says
Thanks a lot for the article! It’s really inspired me to set my goals even higher (I’ve been freelance for about 18 months).
I think the tone of your article also encompasses a personal aspect of the most successful translators: ambitious goals, a positive, proactive approach to increasing their business and demanding rates that they deserve. I know plenty of intelligent and skilled linguists who don’t dare dream of six figures and are timid about the whole marketing process so aim low and accept less than they know they are worth.
I’m based in the UK and work with Japanese to English. Most good agencies and direct clients I’ve dealt with offer between £0.055~£0.11 ($0.09~18) per word and, apparently, specialisations like patents can draw in £0.20 ($0.32) per word. I’m currently specialising in Economics and Business to increase the volume of work I can get. I think because it is a relatively unusual pair it is possible to make a living as a Japanese generalist, but you’d spend more time researching and studying than you would translating. Having a marketable specialisation is definitely key.
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Such a great post, that could not have come at a better time… I’m specialized in medical translation and the trend is definitely going downwards. I’ve been asked to reduce my rates twice in the last year. I’m seeing my income go down, rather than up. I’m realizing now that a) I can’t work solely for translation agencies and b) I need to add another specialty.
This post gives me heart. Thank you!
Interesting article, I’ve only just come cross it in 2014. Mel’s post above struck a chord with me. I think the ability to reach an income of $100,000+ as a translator is dependent on many variables, not least of which is the scarcity (or lack thereof) of your language pair/s, your specialization if any, and what your competitors can or do charge.
The translation industry is a minefield, especially for new translators who can be easily exploited and especially with the cheap commodification of translation as a service with online agencies paying buttons and pitting qualified linguists against each other to bid the lowest price for a job – which is demoralising and depressing, not to mention contemptuous of our expertise and art in my opinion. Unfortunately with the 21st century global market, we’re competing against each other around the world and around the clock, and against some translators who are willing to accept these miniscule rates. It may be that 1-2c per word is a lot where they live, or it may be that it isn’t and they’re desperate, but whatever the reason it’s the reality. In my experience, the only factor that will distinguish you and give you power to command higher rates than a cheaper translator is the quality of your work. If you ensure and offer top quality consistently, you will be in a very small minority.
Working freelance is isolating in that most translators don’t communicate directly with their peers and so can’t discuss and share thoughts on rates and experiences in real time. You also may have no idea how well or poorly your work compares to your competitors’, although if you produce work you feel is your best and is as flawless as you can make it, you should have confidence in it. Translators tend to be shy and many probably underestimate their worth and talent, and undersell themselves also. I think clients and translation vendors also rely on this to some extent in keeping their prices down. A customer will rarely tell you they are happy with your work because they know that it will give you bargaining power when it comes to rate negotiations. In fact it was only when I began to refuse to reduce my rates, and saw that the flow of work continued unchanged despite veiled threats that it would dry up, that I understood how much my customers needed me and the quality of my work in order to retain their end clients.
As a specialized freelancer of almost 20 years, I also work for agencies who try to get me to reduce my rates almost every year like Mel. I politely refuse, citing my own costs. They always apologise and say that they have to ask. I work with the most common European languages so I must have millions of competitors, but if they give you repeat custom, they are happy with your work and you have a stronger negotiating position than you might think. If you have longstanding customers and you charge a somewhat decent word rate, you’re not indispensble or they would have dropped you for a cheaper translator to save money. There is no loyalty in that sense – if they use you, they need you. And if they continually ask you to do test translations to win new customers for them, or to retain customers by fixing or retranslating inadequate translations, they really need you. Don’t underestimate your value to them, and negotiate a reasonable fee for your work.
R’s comments strike a responsive chord with me. I’ve been working as a freelance translator for about 5 years now, after working intermittently as an in-house translator and interpreter in connection with other work for about 25 years before that. I would like to break in to a direct client market, and I have had some intermittent success, but several things seem to make this difficult.
For one thing, it appears based on what I can ascertain from blogs and such that most really successful premium translators spent some time as an “apprentice” in some organization where they were mentored and got considerable feedback on their work; in fact, this seems to be how they honed their skills in a specialty area. Most freelancers, like myself, don’t have the luxury of this kind of background. It’s hard to have that kind of collaboration without some network.
This situation is aggravated if you live overseas, like I do (Vietnam in my case), and as a number of other translators that I know also do. One thing I love about translating is that it is one occupation that you can really do anywhere, but it makes the kind of networking and client acquisition that relies on face time very difficult.
I too am truly sick of agencies that pit translators against each other to get the lowest rates. In my particular field (Russian to English) it has become extremely common, for a number of reasons that aren’t really germane here.
My ultimate question is whether it is possible to break through that ceiling, given my circumstances? Has anybody out there done it? and If so, how?
Corinne McKay says
Thank you for your comment and for those interesting questions. My sense is that it *is* possible to break through the ceiling in just about any language pair and location, but the amount of effort required is going to vary depending on language pair and location. In your case, it sounds as if you have two constraints: working in a language in which there is downward price pressure from in-country translators, and living in a country where there are few or no clients to meet with in person. But I would say yes, it’s doable, but you have go a) use a highly personalized approach to marketing, so that you can sell clients on the value of using you, and b) either find ways to interact with those potential clients in the places *they* hang out online *or* go meet with them in person.
I’m a Japanese-to-English translator and have been having a lot of problems with companies recently. I went looking for what people normally charge, and like mentioned in your post (which I just found today and is great, thanks!) and the comments, no one really talks about them. It seems these days translation companies in Japan at least are offering ridiculously low rates (like 3.5 yen a Japanese character (0.28 USD or so)), but they constantly defend themselves by saying “well there’s a ton of volume, so it’s good for you.”
I might be missing something, but I don’t want to volunteer to work more for less. As I’m sure everyone here can share the sentiment with, I put a great deal of quality and pride into my work, so it’s more beneficial for me to work on fewer projects that pay higher. I would be interested in hearing the experiences of other Japanese-to-English translators, but regardless I’ll definitely be checking your blog more. Thanks for the insight and advice!
This is inspiring, Corinne. Thank you for sharing this article. I feel more dedicated to improving myself and be ready for a better future.
Reblogged this on Univers Cierpial and commented:
I love this! Adding some business sense can work wonders.
Thank you for the article, Corinne. It gives hope to this full-time freelancer who’s been asking for higher rates over the years and trying to make a job that she enjoys very much more profitable. I like what you said about being a businessperson first before being a translator. Thanks again!